The year 2020 promises to be a difficult year for the Belgian brewing industry, according to Nathalie Poissonnier, director of the Belgian Brewers Federation, in an interview this weekend with De Tijd.
2019 had been a banner year: beer exports at an all-time high, and more beer sold than in the ten previous years in cafes and restaurants. 2020 started well, and then catastrophe struck.
The coronavirus pandemic arrived in Belgium, and the first commercial victim was the horeca sector (hotel-restaurant-cafe), which closed down completely on March 13 at midnight, and stayed closed for more than three months.
Even when the sector reopened, it was under strict new rules of social distancing that meant only table and terrace service. Bars were lucky to be able to welcome half as many customers as previously, and customers themselves were none too eager to return.
According to figures from the corona-survey carried out every week by the university of Antwerp, in the first week after reopening, 75% of people had still not visited a restaurant or cafe. One week later, that number had not changed.
“We sold 30% less beer in recent months than we did a year ago,” said Poissonnier. “In the horeca sector there has even been a decrease of 56%. In supermarkets and drinks stores, sales are 6% lower. That is the biggest fall since World War II.”
There are no official figures for the time being on export sales, but the feeling in the industry, she said, is that there too the news will not be good.
“We don’t have any information for now about breweries that are at risk of going bankrupt,” she said. “But we have to be prepared for bad news later this year. A second lockdown would be a disaster.”
Jean-Louis Van de Perre is the president of the federation, and a supporter of the designation of the brewing industry as a sector in difficulty – a designation already applied to the horeca sector.
“We also deserve that position, because we are very dependent on the catering industry,” he told the paper. “There are some 10 to 15 small and large breweries in our country that mainly sell to the catering industry, and they are selling 80% less than usual.”
The cut in VAT for cafes and restaurants to 6%, allowing them to keep the difference on the VAT charged to customers, does not cover alcoholic drinks, including beer. That is a support measure that does nothing for brewers at all. But an extension of the premium paid when cafes had to close might help.
“If that were to happen, it would give cafes the extra oxygen they need,” he said.